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A Day in the Life

Adam Smyth

My father, Alan Smyth, was a viola player. When I was young, in the 1980s, he mentioned a couple of times that he’d played with the Beatles. He wasn’t very interested in them; growing up, I wasn’t either. Years later, now that I’ve become very interested in them, I think often about his casual aside.

My dad died in 2002. In early 2020 I made contact with his musician friends to ask if they had any memories of his playing with the Beatles. John Underwood, the viola player in the Delmé String Quartet, played on ‘Eleanor Rigby’ in April 1966, on ‘A Day in the Life’ in February 1967, and on ‘She’s Leaving Home’ in March 1967. John said my father didn’t play on these songs, and he couldn’t remember if he played on others.

The fixer who arranged string players for lots of Beatles sessions was Sid Sax. He died in 2005. In the 1980s, when my dad was freelance and eternally worried about money, hanging on every phone call, Sax’s was a familiar name in our house, a kind of incantation. He was half-patron, half-demon. Peter Willison, a cellist my dad shared a flat with in St John’s Wood in the mid-to-late 1960s, remembers returning home at about 10 p.m. on 6 October 1967 after a concert at the Albert Hall and getting a call from Sax, telling him to drive to Studio Two at Abbey Road, immediately, for an all-night recording of what turned out to be ‘Blue Jay Way’. Peter arrived at the studio still wearing tails. At 27, he was about the same age as the Beatles. ‘They didn’t really have a clue what they were doing,’ Peter told me. ‘There were no other musicians. There was no music stand and no music. George Martin asked me to listen to the track and just play along. We experimented a bit. Finally at 4 a.m. we were finished.’ Could he remember my dad playing on any Beatles tracks? He couldn’t.

I trawled through footage of Beatles’ recordings online, looking for moments when the string section was visible. For a while I felt certain I could see my father among the black-tie-wearing string players on ‘A Day in the Life’, despite what John Underwood had said; I could certainly recognise some of his friends among the players. But after a few minutes even the wobbly tracking camera couldn’t conceal the fact it was a violinist, not a viola player. When I sent Peter a photo for confirmation, he said the hand position wasn’t quite right for my dad’s bow arm.

I wrote to Mark Lewisohn, the author of The Complete Beatles Chronicle (1992) and the monumental Tune In (2013), a product of such meticulous care that after 946 pages the Beatles story has progressed only as far as December 1962, two months after the release of their first single, ‘Love Me Do’. (Two more volumes will follow.) Lewisohn replied:

The names of the outside musicians brought in to augment Beatles recordings come solely from documents kept by EMI in its archive. It is an incomplete set of papers. It’s a frustration to history that holes remain in the collection. In those documents we do have, your father’s name does not show. In those we don’t have … well, there’s simply no knowledge.

I asked him specifically about ‘A Day in the Life’, hoping I’d been wrong. Lewisohn has documents for that session listing all the musicians, with addresses and signatures. ‘Your father can’t be among them.’

I tried other routes. I spoke to someone at Abbey Road, who told me to try Universal Music Archives, which includes the Abbey Road archive; they directed me to the EMI Archive Trust. I talked to the former chief accountant of Warner Brothers who runs Crescendo Music Services, which collects unpaid historic fees for session musicians. The trail ran cold. This all happened while Covid-19 was turning from a story about elsewhere to the only news in town.

Was my father mistaken? Did he imagine himself into a famous period of music history? Did he blur one of the hundreds of recording sessions he did with the recordings he’d heard his colleagues discuss? Did he make it up to impress me? Had I misheard him, or misremembered him, or reimagined something slightly different? I can’t see a way to resolve these questions. I feel a moment in the past dwindling, receding towards a dot.


Comments


  • 29 December 2020 at 1:00pm
    stacemeister says:
    Thank you for this article. I very much hope that you find the proof eventually of your father playing with the Beatles; something tells me that he did.

  • 29 December 2020 at 2:55pm
    Patrick Oliver says:
    They say that if you can remember the 60s, then you weren't really there.

  • 29 December 2020 at 3:44pm
    Simon Skinner says:
    Adam, the key variable is surely your father's known personality rather than any notionally objective 'proof'. After all, a name might be on a list in an EMI etc archive, but be of a person contracted to show up who never did. If your father was not given to hyperbole or false claims, and he said he played with the Beatles, then you're entitled to feel that you know he played with the Beatles.

  • 29 December 2020 at 4:35pm
    Ian Whittingham says:
    On October 19, 1967 my father, George Whittingham, went to De Lane Lea Studios in Dean Street, Soho, together with six other brass band musicians, to record a backing track. They were invited because the composer of the song they were recording wanted "a massive Salvation Army freak-out." At the time, my father and the six other musicians were all members of the Salvation Army's International Staff Band. None of them had the foggiest idea what a "freak-out" was or what it was meant to sound like. Nevertheless, they managed to improvise a 16 bar march in 4/4 that dovetailed with the jaunty rhythm of the song's theme tune. As they were all moonlighting, none of them were officially credited on the recording.

    It wasn't until many years later that a cousin emailed me to ask me if I knew that my father had played E-flat bass on Jugband Blues, the last song that Syd Barrett recorded with Pink Floyd. No, I didn't. When I asked my father about it he said, yes, he had, but he had no idea at the time who they were or who Syd Barrett was. However, he did recall the Beatles in an adjacent studio at Abbey Road when the International Staff Band were recording one of their own records there at the same time. "I suppose I should have asked them for their autographs," he said. Yes, you should. My father is 94 and still plays his E-flat bass.

  • 29 December 2020 at 4:58pm
    vulpiani says:
    Re the comment about remembering the 60s from Patrick Oliver. It's time that this very silly saying was put to bed. I lived through the 60s and remember them very well - from 1960-69, as did millions of others. Oliver's comment is actually a rather nasty sneer at all of us who lived at that time.

    • 29 December 2020 at 6:45pm
      OldScrounger says: @ vulpiani
      Perhaps the old saw should be revised to read: "If you can remember the '60s, you weren't out of it."

    • 4 January 2021 at 12:15am
      Anthony Gosse says: @ vulpiani
      Thanks for saying this. I lived through the sixties too and remember them very well. We were lucky to live in a very interesting era.

  • 29 December 2020 at 5:34pm
    Leslie Ingham says:
    We all write our own stories within the framework created by the lives around us. If playing with the Beatles was part of your father's story as he told it, then so long as he isn't harming others, the gracious thing is to believe him. Factual or wishful, a backup musician for the Beatles is who he wanted to be for you.

  • 29 December 2020 at 6:40pm
    Richard Jacobs says:
    When I was a young teenager I would boast to my school friends that my grandmother had signed photos of each of the Beatles. It was because their solicitor was my father's gay cousin, known in the family as Bertie but professionally as David. Many years later I heard that he'd killed himself over some rentboy blackmail business linked somehow with Brian Epstein. Now with a little googling it seems much more likely that he was bumped off by the Krays for refusing to help them over some impending investigation. Perhaps LRB readers will know more than I do about this?

  • 29 December 2020 at 6:47pm
    David McKenna says:
    Well said, Leslie Ingham, I think that's an excellent way to look at it!

  • 29 December 2020 at 9:26pm
    Angela McShane says:
    According to your article you’ve investigated players at recordings but not other sorts of performance - such as live gigs, etc. Is it possible that this might be where your father played with them?

  • 30 December 2020 at 2:17pm
    Patrick Howarth says:
    Your story is almost exactly the same as one my father tells. He was a classical musician in London in the 60s and he played one session with The Beatles for which he was booked by Sid Sax. Like your father and many other classical players, my dad did not rate then much as musicians but he liked them as people. The Beatles, of course, did not have the musical language needed to communicate with classically trained instrumentalists, which is why George Martin was so important. If you look at Ian Macdonald's 'Revolution in the Head', you'll see that the supporting players in many of the groups later recordings are unknown. By the sound of it your dad certainly must have played at one or more of these sessions. I hope one day you'll find out which.

    • 30 December 2020 at 3:47pm
      Adam Smyth says: @ Patrick Howarth
      Thanks, Patrick! That's remarkable. Unless of course we share the same father.
      I think the shape of this kind of story is a particular form of family memory, and probably quite common; a bit like myth (it has an influence on people whether or not it is true), and a bit like allegory (it seems to stand for something larger than itself).
      For the record, I'm almost certain my dad *did* play with the Beatles.

  • 31 December 2020 at 3:36am
    Carl Bowlby says:
    Anything related to the Beatles is worthy of memory and myth as we all kinda feel “we were there”. But as far as your father actually “being there” who can really say if there is no record of his playing for hire, or photos, or contemporaries saying they remember him being there. Also, at the time, from my sense of it, nobody held the Beatles in such mythic regard as they do now, so it’s very conceivable that your father may indeed have played on a session, but “fell through the cracks” in regard to being logged in someone’s ledger, or having a pay stub and the like. Just enjoy the fact that maybe he did play on “She’s leaving Home” a much more likely candidate for the viola than the loud symphonic rush of “A Day”. Then again, “Blue Jay Way” could’ve been the “quiet Beatle’s” track he “quietly” played on. Regardless, play on, brother!

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